Understanding China’s Nuclear Arsenal – Comments by Maj. General Yao

On April 8, 2013, the Carnegie Endowment hosted their biannual Nuclear Policy Conference.  The first day was marked by a panel featuring U.S. Acting Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller, People’s Liberation Army Major General Yao Yunzhu (China,) and former Deputy Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, Alexei Arbatov.

The panel was entitled Prague 2.0? Deterrence, Disarmament and Nonproliferation in Obama’s Second Term but the conversation provided an opportunity for General Yao, director of the Center on China-American Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Science, to offer some insights into China’s strategic thoughts and vision for its largely opaque nuclear program.

The major take-away from General Yao’s comments was her articulation of the three underpinnings of Chinese nuclear strategy.  According to General Yao, China’s nuclear arsenal requires three components: survivability, a penetration capacity and a deterrent threat.

General Yao repeatedly highlighted the Chinese no first-use doctrine and that more than ninety percent of the global nuclear arsenal is still controlled by the US and Russia, either as stored or deployed nuclear weapons.  In order to move toward a multilateral framework for arms control, General Yao said that the “U.S. and Russia have to do one or two rounds of negotiations to further reduce” their arsenals.

The panel also discussed further US-Russian bilateral reductions. During this conversation MP Abratov stated that “China is the only state that could quickly build up to level of U.S.-Russian” nuclear arsenal size.

General Yao responded that, “China will not seek nuclear superiority” and that the smaller Nuclear Weapons States should promise not to enter an arms race with the U.S. or Russia.

MP Abratov called on the Chinese to be more transparent about the size of their nuclear arsenal.  “China is the only serious specter,” according to MP Abratov.  It seems strange for a Russian to criticize the Chinese on a lack of transparency with their arsenal which has been a hallmark of Soviet and Russian policy.

General Yao responded that due to the small size of the Chinese arsenal and its no first-use a “certain amount of opaqueness is necessary” to achieve its three required characteristics..  General Yao also noted the presence of Chinese underground tunnels as part of their survivability strategy. These tunnels have prompted a small number of observers to argue that China could be storing a much larger number of nuclear warheads than US intelligence estimates suggest, though there is little evidence to support this view.

Undersecretary Gottemoeller did praise the Chinese for their efforts to lead a terminology working group for nuclear weapons that would help to create mutual understanding among the permanent five members of the UN Security Council.  She cited the need to “create fabric, environment for future multilateral negotiations.”  However, Undersecretary Gottemoeller seemed to be the only panelist looking forward to multilateral arms controls talks in the near-term.